A pair of US Air Force HH-60 Pave Hawk helicopters flies over Alaska on a training mission. (Master Sgt. Sean Mitchell/Alaska Air National Guar)
WASHINGTON — The US Air Force is unlikely to see a new combat search and rescue (CSAR) helicopter in the near future, but the service remains committed to the mission, according to its top civilian.
“It’s an important platform with a lot of support, but it will be very difficult because of how little money there is for new starts in the coming year,” Eric Fanning, acting Air Force secretary, told reporters at an Air Force Association breakfast Monday. “I’m hard-pressed to imagine we can afford to start that soon based on the sequestration numbers and mechanics.
“I think all of the services, if given more money, would be investing it in what they’ve got, in their readiness and training, rather than starting something new.”
Defense News reported this week that the Combat Rescue Helicopter (CRH) program is not funded under the sequestered budget assembled by the Air Force. The CRH program is the Defense Department’s second attempt in the past decade to replace its heavily used Sikorsky-built Pave Hawk helicopters, some of which have been performing military and civil rescue operations since 1982. The Air Force wants to buy 112 new helicopters.
However, Fanning insisted the Air Force is not going to abandon the CSAR mission.
“That is still a priority mission for the Air Force,” Fanning said. “I have not seen a more emotional debate among the Air Force four-stars than when it came to the search-and-rescue mission. It impressed upon me how important that mission is.”
The service will continue to weigh whether the mission could be handled by Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) as a stopgap until a helicopter replacement program can move forward. AFSOC spent several months this summer pushing to take over the CSAR mission, under the belief that its Bell-Boeing CV-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft could perform the mission at a lower cost. That idea has met resistance, both on Capitol Hill and from Air Combat Command (ACC), which operates the mission.
“If we can’t fund that new helicopter in the near years, it doesn’t mean we’re walking away from the mission, it doesn’t mean we’re walking away from recapitalization,” Fanning said. “But there is also a debate about where the mission should be in the Air Force, and that was the real emotional part — ACC versus Air Force Special Operations. We asked them to come back to us in the [fiscal 2016 planning budget] decision.”
In 2006, the Air Force awarded Boeing a contract expected to be worth $15 billion under the Combat Search and Rescue Helicopter program (CSAR-X). But after the Government Accountability Office upheld a protest from competitors Sikorsky and Lockheed Martin, over how the contract was handled, the deal was canceled in 2009. It took nearly 3½ years to relaunch CRH following the CSAR-X cancellation.
Service officials planned to award the CRH contract this year, but the program has again seen delays. Despite public statements that the Air Force desired multiple bidders, only one team — United Technologies subsidiary Sikorsky, working with Lockheed Martin — submitted a bid. Three other competitors dropped out under the belief they would not be able to meet the program price cap of $6.8 billion.